Chapter One: Preparations

“Do you wanna have kids?” asked Ageha.

Saya raised an eyebrow, unable to hide her surprise. “What’s this all of a sudden?”

The stoic butler no longer deserved the adjective in that title. As the days passed, more of Saya’s colorful expressions surfaced. Each one enticed Ageha to draw out more, transforming her from a robot to a normal, albeit slightly stiff, woman.

“Just curious.”

“…Probably not. They say children tend to repeat the mistakes of their parents. I told you about mine. I’m afraid I’ll only ruin my child’s life.”

“Impossible.”

“What makes you think so?”

“You’re great at everything you do. And you have a lot of experience raising Kai.”

“Look at how that turned out.”

Ageha shrugged and nodded. “Point taken.”

“What about you? I said I don’t want kids, but I don’t really feel strongly about it. If you want-”

“I do.”

“I can’t help but sense a bit of finality in that answer.”

“Kids are cute, aren’t they?”

“Boy or girl?”

“One of each, but if I had to pick one, a daughter. Definitely.”

“Lolicon.”

“I’m talking about our child here!”

Saya’s cheeks turned slightly pink from hearing the word “our” in his emphatic reply. “Who knows? Maybe you want an oyakodon.”

“…That does sound appetizing.” Naturally, he was kidding.

“Aren’t your fetishes snowballing recently?”

“And whose fault is that?”

“I can’t help it! Ojousama trained me to never say no to requests.”

“Then you’ll approve an oyakodon?”

“Of course not!”

“I volunteer,” said Arashi, her voice coming from their earpieces.

Gunfire echoed within the large building. A bullet bounced off an industrial metal crane just behind Ageha, ushering him to jump into cover.

That was close.

If not for his quick and erratic movements, that shot would have hit its mark.

Where is she?

He knew Arashi’s general location from the sound of the gunfire, but that was not enough to get close and attack. He needed to know her exact position in order to make use of the variety of cover scattered around the abandoned car factory.

Keeping his head low, Ageha moved from the shell of a half-built car to a raised conveyer belt. He peeked out around an assembly line robot arm to check for pursuers.

“Arashi, I don’t think you know what oyakodon means in this context.”

“I do. Oyakodon literally means parent-and-child rice bowl, which is derived from the use of chicken and egg as the main ingredients.”

Saya was not the only one who had changed over the past few months. Arashi had grown much better at expressing herself, an achievement born from constant conversation practice with her teammates. Her trademark broken sentences had become few and far between, at least compared to when they first met.

“See, I knew you didn’t get-”

“But in this context, you are referring to the sexual situation derived from that term, which consists of having a threesome with a mother and daughter.”

“And you’re okay with that!?”

“…It’s a little embarrassing… but yeah. You’ll have to wait for our daughter to grow up a bit though. Oh, but if you want it ASAP… I can try calling Mom. I sent her pictures of you. She thinks you’re hot.”

Unfortunately, her incomprehensible personality remained untouched.

“Request denied!” Saya, the “legal wife,” launched a roundhouse kick at Ageha’s head to drive the point home.

Ageha ducked her alloy shin, which smashed into the robot arm behind him. Metal shards ripped open her form-fitting bodysuit, exposing the artificial skin on her leg.

Ageha countered with a leg sweep that took Saya off her feet. Before he could deal the finishing blow, a bullet hit his back, causing him to stumble forward.

The robot arm, albeit damaged, should have hidden him from Arashi’s sight. Despite that, he had gotten hit.

Did Arashi change position?

Another bullet hit his shoulder. This time, he understood what happened. The bullet had ricocheted off an engine block hanging above them. Taking advantage of his broken stance, Saya kicked his chest armor with both legs. The ferocious attack launched his over 300-pound body almost a dozen feet. He crashed into a half built car sitting on the assembly line and landed in the backseat.

“Hey, you can’t bounce bullets at me! That’s cheating.”

“Blame Saya. She was the one who insisted that I use rubber bullets.”

“That doesn’t mean you can intentionally ricochet them. It’s too dangerous. What if you hit Saya by accident?”

“Don’t worry, I’m fine.”

“I bet you have a smug smile on your face right now.”

And I really want to wipe it off.

“Anyway, about giving birth to Ageha’s child-”

“That topic is over!” Saya dashed towards Ageha with a menacing scowl.

“That’s not my fault. Don’t take it out on me!” Ageha jumped out the other side of the car and sprinted, Arashi’s bullets hot on his heels.

“Saya… Aren’t we supposed to be sharing? Why can’t I have his kids?”

“Y-You’re too young! A child can’t give birth to a child, much less raise one!”

“I’m not a child. I even got a motorcycle license recently.”

“An ordinary one you’re using illegally for your ridiculous bike! You’re a year too young for a heavy motorcycle license.”

“What does that have to do with having children?”

“You brought it up! Anyway, the point is you’re only seventeen! Having children is out of the question!”

“The age of consent in Japan is thirteen. That’s what the internet said.”

“That’s just the national law! Tokyo prefecture has it at eighteen!”

“Weren’t you the one goading her into sex in the operating room?” asked Ageha.

“Th-Th-That was different! I was there, and, and… Anyway! Ageha can only have a child with me, and that’s that!”

“Ageha, Saya just contradicted herself.”

“And you’re making sense. The world must be ending.”

“Thanks. As a reward… can I ask you to do something?”

“Depends on what it is.”

“Can you stop moving around? It’s almost impossible to hit you like that.”

He continued to slip between car parts and factory machines while trying to figure out where the rifle shots were coming from. “The enemy we’ll be fighting is much faster than I am. Deal with it.”

A man-sized robot arm, used to assemble cars, swung at him from the right. He barely avoided the attack by twisting his torso. The mechanical arm continued its assault, but without the element of surprise, it may as well not have been moving. Ageha slipped past the metal pincer and grabbed the base of the manipulator. A neighboring arm flinched to life, ready to attack him. Ageha ripped the robot arm in his grasp straight off the base and clubbed the other one into submission.

“Wasn’t this factory abandoned?” asked Ageha. “Who turned on the power?”

“Ojousama said it’d make things more interesting.” Saya operated the ground-level console on the other side of the assembly line.

An empty car shell fell from above. With no time to dodge, Ageha raised the robot arm horizontally and used it as padding to catch the bottom of the car’s roof. His limbs creaked from the weight, but Tsubasa’s shock-dispersing joint upgrades protected him from any serious damage.

Arashi peppered the car body with her automatic rifle. With Ageha effectively inside the chassis-less vehicle she did not have a direct shot, but the bullets slipped through the windows and ricocheted around inside. Some of them hit Ageha’s armor and legs. Rubber bullets did much less damage than real ones, but they were still annoying in large doses.

Ageha thrust an uppercut into the robot arm, which was firmly embedded in the interior car roof. The force of the blow floated the entire car body for a second. In that time, he rolled out of the metal cage and broke into a run to evade Arashi’s sniping.

Saya chased after him while firing her pistol. Two bullets hit the back of his helmet, shaking him up a bit. She normally avoided shooting his head, even with his helmet and neck brace on. In fact, a falling car was possibly lethal even for someone as durable as him. His girlfriend was definitely trying harder than usual.

“Are you angry?”

“No,” she said curtly, her face devoid of emotion.

Ageha had learned that in exchange for acquiring more vivid expressions, Saya completely reverted to robot mode when she was furious.

“For the record, the sharing thing was your idea.”

“I know.”

“Again, for the record, I haven’t done anything to Arashi. Nothing that can get me arrested, anyway.”

“Oh, really?”

Ageha reached the end of the factory and turned to face his pursuer. “I’ll have to check online about the specific laws.”

Two more shots bounced off his face plate.

“You call that not being angry?”

A line of unused equipment walled up his left side. Arashi’s cover fire stopped. Based on the instances when Arashi lost sight of him, he deduced her exact position. He looked up at the maze of catwalks suspended about twenty feet above the factory floor.

Black control panels, large enough to hide a small teenage girl from view, stood in each of the four corners of the main catwalk encircling the factory. Only one was not visible from his current position.

Found you.

“Can you blame me?” asked Saya with a pained expression, her pistol still pointed at him. “I said I didn’t want kids earlier, and a part of me meant that. But the real reason I sounded so negative was because I wanted to see how you felt about it. Ageha, I… I figured it’d be best if I could take care of it secretly. The truth is, I’m… ” She gently touched her belly with her left hand.

“…No way.”

She’s pregnant!?

Saya nodded.

Ageha lost power in his arms, letting them fall by his sides. “W-Why the hell are you training!? You should take care of your body!”

Saya emptied her magazine into his face. Even with the auto-locking neck brace, the consecutive impacts shook his brain, stunning him in place. Saya darted to him with blinding speed and launched a flying kick into his chestplate.

The impact traveled through his body and dispersed into the ground. At the last moment, he had blocked her foot with his hands and stopped himself from getting pushed backward by jamming his heel on the wall behind him. A few cracks formed on the concrete.

Ageha grabbed her calf with both hands, preventing her escape. She jumped up and tried to kick his head with her other leg. Instead of dodging, he merely lowered the hands holding Saya’s leg, and the rest of her body followed. Her kick suddenly dropped altitude and hit his upper arm. With barely any leverage, her alloy foot did nothing against his thicker alloy tricep. Before she could recover, he secured her free ankle with his other hand.

“You almost got me,” said Ageha. “I was really surprised. That was kinda low.”

He had forgotten that Saya was the closest person to that little devil. Ageha had also learned to lie effectively from Kaika, but he was no match against his lover, who had been immersed in Kaika’s infectious aura for years.

Hanging upside down like a dead shark, Saya looked at Ageha and shrugged. “All’s fair in love and war.”

“…True.”

But that did not make him any less pissed about being duped.

Saya noticed the change in his disposition and leaked a pensive look. “Wh-What’s gonna happen now?”

“This.” Ageha tossed her in the air.

The normally composed Saya screamed like a child as her body spun like a frisbee. Her flight exceeded the height of the catwalk before beginning descent.

Ageha gathered power in his legs and shot up towards Saya. He grabbed her body and landed on the catwalk. The metal structure shook and creaked from the forceful landing but did not fall despite its aging foundations.

“You used me to distract Arashi?” asked Saya, her waist slung over his shoulder.

“She would’ve shot me down if I jumped first.” He put light pressure on her torso, which was pressed firmly to his chest. “Don’t get any ideas. You’re just a hostage now.”

Saya surrendered her weight to him. “Can’t you carry me like a princess instead?”

“Let’s save that for after the ceremony.”

“Ceremony? Y-You mean…” She fidgeted in his arms. “Not that I mind, but isn’t this a weird situation to propo-”

“Just kidding.”

Saya grumbled after falling victim to her own dirty tactics.

Unable to shoot Ageha with Saya’s body in the way, Arashi bolted away from the black control panel. Tightly wrapped in a pure black bodysuit, she moved like a panther springing from the cover of foliage. Ageha immediately gave pursuit. Even with Saya’s weight on his shoulder, Ageha’s much larger and more powerful alloy legs allowed him to steadily catch up.

Upon reaching the end of the catwalk, Arashi leapt off the ledge, shot a grappling barb from her rifle at the ceiling, and swung to the ground. Without bothering to retrieve the barb, Arashi unlatched the metal rope from her weapon and ran away.

Looks like she’s focused on running.

In that case, a shield will only slow me down.

Ageha tapped Saya’s butt. “Consider this your deathblow.” He gently put her down on the catwalk and jumped on top of a suspended car body a few feet below.

About a dozen car bodies hung in a line across the factory. Using them as stepping stones, Ageha chased his remaining target. Arashi could not fire at him because the makeshift platforms hid most of him from view.

“Arashi should’ve shot me along with you,” said Saya through the earpiece. “That’s the only way to deal with hostages in the field.”

“She’d never do that.”

“Really? I’m her biggest obstacle in love.”

“I’d kill her if she did.”

“That’s mean, Ageha,” said Arashi. “I can hear you… you know.”

“He’s messing with your head, Arashi. Concentrate on the mission.”

“Roger.”

“Hey, dead people can’t give advice.”

“Says the guy using a conversation with the same dead person to distract the enemy.”

“All’s fair and all that.”

Arashi reached the end of the factory and planted her back against the corner wall. She began tinkering with her rifle. Ageha kept his eyes on her while rapidly shortening the gap between them.

Is she reloading?

No, she’s taking too long.

Did her gun get damaged when she used the grappling hook?

Is it a trick to lure me in?

Ageha closed his eyes for a moment and focused his mind.

Doesn’t matter.

I just need to reach her before she can do anything.

He leapt off the final suspended car body and broke his fall with a roll. Without pause, he got up and sprinted towards Arashi, who was in the middle of inserting a magazine into her rifle. Seeing his approach, she flung a grenade at him.

Without Saya in the vicinity, Arashi could use her grenades freely, making her more dangerous than before. While regretting leaving his bouncy meat shield, Ageha used his bionic eyes to zoom in on the projectile, an impact triggered flash grenade. He knew it would have little to no effect against him with his bionic vision and full armor. Arashi knew that too.

A trap.

Ageha initially considered plowing through, but Arashi understood his bulldog tactics all too well. She had been victimized by them enough to learn her lesson. Retreat was the more prudent course of action.

Ageha jumped backward while slapping the flash grenade to trigger it. White light and blaring sound enveloped the area, but he remained unfazed. A timed fuse frag grenade slid to a stop a few paces from his previous position and exploded. He crouched down and protected his face and neck from the shrapnel with his arms.

Talk about a close shave.

Arashi had thrown two grenades, hiding the frag behind the flashbang. The force from the flashbang’s explosion tossed the frag grenade to the perfect spot for a trap. If Ageha had pushed forward instead of retreating, he would have stepped right into the blast. The shrapnel would have shredded his genitals, which, unlike the rest of his body, was barely protected. His metal groin cup provided little to no protection in actual combat, but that was a risk he willingly took for the sake of mobility and flexibility.

“Didn’t you want to have my kids? That almost became impossible just now.”

“I knew you’d avoid it.” Arashi pushed the rifle bolt forward to load a round.

Ageha rocketed towards her. “I don’t need that kind of trust.”

She pointed her rifle at him. He protected his head with his arms and sped up even more.

I’ll take a bullet and grab her.

Then he noticed something odd. Arashi’s rifle seemed much longer than earlier. He recalled the image of her pushing the bolt on her rifle just seconds ago.

Wasn’t her rifle automatic?

The frequency of the shots hounding him since the start of the match certainly suggested so.

Shit.

He reached out as fast as he could to grab her extended weapon. His fingers were only an inch away from the muzzle when Arashi pulled the trigger. A shocking impact shook his innards and flung him about ten feet away.

Enduring the damage, he got up and rushed at Arashi again. This time, he reached her before she could pull the trigger. He grabbed the rifle barrel and ripped it from her hands.

“Stop!”

Ageha froze upon hearing the call from his earpiece. It was Kaika.

“The match is over. The girls win.”

“What.”

“You lost, that’s what.”

“No way. I have the advantage right now.”

“You would, if this were a mere game. Unfortunately for you, it’s a simulation. That means the last hit you took killed you. What you’re holding is an anti-materiel rifle. Not even your armor can save you from a direct hit on the body. The only reason you’re standing right now is because Arashi is using training rounds.”

Ageha inspected the sniper rifle he snatched from Arashi. “You had another rifle?”

Ageha replayed the match in his head. Arashi had used a grappling hook, a feature only available on her assault rifle, to jump down from the catwalk. That meant she switched weapons after landing on the ground.

But when?

She did not have time to pick up another weapon with him on her tail. At least, he did not think so.

The teen shook her head. “That’s the same one. Here, let me show you.” She took the weapon from him and reassembled it like a rubix cube.

The barrel shortened to a third of its length, and the gun body changed shape with a few adjustments.

She finished the modification by pushing a locking pin in place. “This is the assault mode I used while providing cover fire for Saya earlier. It can also shoot grappling wires.”

“Tsubasa’s work?” He removed his helmet and savored the cool winter air on his sweaty face.

Arashi nodded.

“But there’s no magazine.”

“I left the assault mode magazines inside the weapon case on the catwalk. I knew I couldn’t damage you enough to win with low caliber rounds… so I switched to this.”

“Why didn’t you use that from the start?”

“It has a terrible… firing rate. I can’t support Saya with it. It’s hard enough to hit you with bouncing bullets from an automatic. That’s why I put myself in a corner to limit your range of movement… and waited until you got close enough. Even you can’t dodge a point blank shot.”

“And it worked.” Kaika, sporting a tan sweater that almost entirely covered her charcoal miniskirt and black stockings, sauntered to them while clapping her hands. “Congratulations! The score is now 27 to 28. The girls team finally took the lead!”

Kaika always joined them during training. She did not feel safe without at least one of her three best killers near her, so she brought along her portable terminal and worked in a safe location nearby while the others repeatedly conducted simulation matches. She watched from the main control room whenever they used the car factory for training.

With the skills Ageha, Saya, and Arashi had, it was pointless to train with people outside of the team, and a one-on-one match with Ageha could hardly be called a match. Those factors had lead to the two-on-one training sessions done in preparation for the fight against Valeriya’s deadly faceless robot.

Ageha raised a hand. “I object. Arashi shot around obstacles by bouncing rubber bullets. That wouldn’t work in a real battle. She took advantage of the simulation conditions.”

“And did those ricocheting bullets change the outcome of the battle in the end?”

“…No.”

“Objection overruled.”

“Do these matches even mean anything? I can’t use my energy overload system or drug. I’m fighting handicapped.”

“Putting aside the drug that almost killed you, the energy overload system takes a large toll on your body and ARMS. It’s not worth using in training. Besides, you weren’t complaining about the conditions when you were leading 27 to 18. I even bought a car factory to give you abundant cover. If I chose something like a football field, Arashi would take you down in a heartbeat. Don’t start complaining just because you’re on a losing streak.”

“My ten straight losses started when Tsubasa took away my weapon. She hasn’t returned it yet. On the other hand, Arashi got a transforming rifle. How is that fair?”

“It’s your fault for breaking it so badly. She’s working on making it durable enough so you can’t damage it even if you try. On that note, stop breaking stuff like a caveman. I’m fine with you damaging the arena, but lay off the weapons. You almost twisted off the barrel from Arashi’s rifle. Maybe I should send you the bill for everything you destroy? Better yet, should I forward Tsubasa’s rant calls and hate mail to you?”

“Give up, Ageha.” Saya, back from the dead, walked over to them. “You should know by now it’s pointless to argue against Ojousama, especially if you don’t have reason on your side. A loss is a loss. Just accept it.”

Kaika crossed her arms and nodded. “You being a sore loser is nothing new, but it’s starting to get annoying. Do something about it, will you?”

Ageha furrowed his eyebrows but could not think of a comeback, at least not one that would not further damage his pride.

“I was just… lucky,” said Arashi. “Ageha is right. If he had his full arsenal, we wouldn’t stand a chance. Even without it, I would’ve lost if Ageha didn’t hold back all the time. He… never goes all out to avoid hurting us.”

Ageha felt the urge to give his sole defender a hug but settled with roughly messing with her hair. “At least someone gets it. You did great, by the way. Using an anti-materiel rifle at melee range was a good move.”

Arashi gently closed her eyes while making a faint smile, like a kitten purring in delight from her master’s caress.

Saya sidled up to Kaika. “Arashi is way too attached to Ageha recently. She always takes his side no matter what. If it were not for our winning streak, I would think she is holding back against him in training.”

Kaika smiled wryly at her butler. “Arashi holding back? You of all people should know that isn’t possible.”

“I would have agreed with you a few months ago, Ojousama. But you of all people know that humans can change.”

The adorable raven-haired nymphet released an uncharacteristic snort. “Maybe. Then again she almost blew off Ageha’s balls.”

“You should not speak such vulgar words, Ojousama. That reminds me, I need to discipline Arashi about choosing her targets more carefully.”

“Probably a good idea. Just don’t overdo it. You know your jealous streak.”

Unable to deny it, Saya simply turned away from her mistress in a rare display of defiance.

Kaika walked over to Ageha, who had just released the catnipped Arashi. “I have a message for you from Mei Xing. Mao’s rehab is going well. She still spends her days on a wheelchair, but that’s better than being stuck in bed.”

“That’s great progress in just two months. Thanks, Kai.”

“Are you ill or something?” Kaika tiptoed and stretched her arm to reach his forehead. She had grown a fair bit in the past year, allowing her to do so easily.

Indeed, being so sincere in front of the cheeky brat was unlike him. Petting Arashi probably lowered his guard somewhat.

Ageha gently pushed away Kaika’s hand. “It was your technology that saved her.”

“Mei Xing and I are allies, not friends. I’m expecting a proper return for this investment.”

“I’ll be sure to remind him.”

Ageha hoped that Mei Xing’s gratitude would urge him to forgive Saya for indirectly murdering his father Zhang Wei Long. If that secret never came to light, even better.

“I’m done with most of my work for tonight.” Kaika stretched her arms over her head. “Since you’re done with training, let’s head back to the mansion.”

Kaika trotted away, with Saya gliding closely behind her. Before Ageha could follow, Arashi placed a hand on his shoulder.

“What’s up?”

“You’re riding with me.”

“You mean on your bike?”

Arashi nodded.

“…I’d rather relax in the car with Kai.”

“No can do. I won… the bet with Saya.”

“Bet?”

“Whoever deals the winning blow gets to take you home.”

Ageha turned to his lover, who merely waved a hand without turning around.

The girls thought his defeat was so certain that they bet against each other. That pissed him off.

I ought to teach them a lesson.

But there were more pressing issues at the moment.

“Arashi, how long have you had your license, exactly?”

“Does it matter? Saya says it’s illegal with my bike anyway.”

Well, that didn’t inspire much confidence.

“I haven’t actually seen your bike yet. Why is it illegal?”

“Too many CCs. 1400 over the what my license allows, I think. Or was it 1500?”

If I remember correctly, ordinary motorcycle licenses allowed up to 400cc engines…

“I appreciate the offer, but I think I’ll take the car.”

“Losers have to listen to winners. Mitsuki taught me that.”

“Not if we didn’t agree to anything before the match.”

Arashi made puppy dog eyes at him. “…Can’t you ride with me just this once? Think of it… as practice.”

She has a point.

Practice is important.

Despite all evidence, he refused to admit that her adorable pleading shattered his will to resist in an instant.

“Fine. Let’s go.”

Arashi grabbed his hand and dragged him outside the factory. “Don’t worry. I’m good.”

“How good exactly?”

“…You might want to wear your helmet.”

What have I gotten myself into?

“Mi-Mi-Miracle! Mikurun-run! Mi-Mi-Miracle! Mikurun-run!”

What the hell?

The freaky sound came from his mobile. The caller id said “Beautiful Onee-san.” He never put such a contact in his phone but answered it anyway.

“How the hell did you change the ringtone on my phone, Ria?”

Did she hack into it?

I need to warn Kai as soon as I can.

Who knows what info she got her paws on.

But why would she carelessly reveal such a trump card now?

“Not even a greeting. Bis Sis feels mistreated~”

“Cut the crap.”

“I didn’t hack into your phone or network, if that’s what you’re thinking. Before the Ken incident, the cute mute on your team changed the ringtone of my number on your phone at Mitsuki’s request. It’s just a kid’s prank. Don’t get your panties in a bunch.”

Ageha signaled to Arashi to wait before continuing the conversation. “A prank you engineered, I bet.”

“How boorish. Call it guidance. Anyway, I’m pleasantly surprised you didn’t delete my number.”

“I just forgot all about it, to be honest.”

“Honesty isn’t always the best policy, you know. Especially when dealing with ladies.”

“That’s good advice. Well, if that’s all I’ll make sure to delete it now. Bye.”

“Wait, wait! So impatient.” She clicked her tongue. “Actually, it’s not me who has business with you.” Ria’s voice grew faint, as if she moved the phone away from her head. “Here, I called him like you asked. Come here. Stop hiding behind a pillow! That’s too cute! I’ll bleed all over my phone! This is waterproof, but removing blood is still a pain! Oh no! I can’t resist the temptation! My body is moving by itself! Kyaaaaa~”

A medley of clatter and shrieks came from the other line. The ruckus died down moments later. The sound of someone picking up the phone caught Ageha’s attention.

“H-Hello?” asked Mitsuki.

“Been a while. How are you doing?”

“I’m good! Yeah. You?”

“Tired, but otherwise fine.”

“I see… What were you doing?”

“Just a bit of exercise.” He could not very well say that he had been training to beat her evil half. ”So, what’s up?”

“…V-Va… V-Valentine’s Day is coming up…”

“Right. I forgot all about that.”

He had reservations at a steakhouse for a Valentine’s dinner date with Saya, but he was not cruel enough to reveal that to a girl who liked him. Fooling Mitsuki was the option with less guilt attached.

“That doesn’t make sense. You have a girlfriend. You can’t have forgotten all about it. You’re either a liar or a jerk. Which is it?”

As always, Mitsuki exceeded his expectations.

“Did you call just to lambast me?”

A sharp gasp came from the receiver. “Sorry! I didn’t mean to!”

“Don’t worry about it. Take a deep breath and calm down.” He heard her exhaling on the receiver.

“Ageha.”

“Yeah?”

“Would you go on a date with me on Valentine’s Day?”

 

***

 

“And he accepted?” said Viktor with a stupefied expression.

“Why wouldn’t he?” Valeriya tossed a used up lollipop stick in the trash. “The cutest girl in the world asked him out.”

“Uh, I don’t know, maybe because that girl is the daughter of his most dangerous enemy?”

“You give me too much credit. That’s me being excessively humble, by the way. It’s a Japanese thing. And I’m a fake weeaboo.”

“What the hell is a fake weeaboo?”

“I intentionally mispronounce Japanese words even though I’m perfectly fluent just to look cute. Stuff like that.”

“I think that’s called being an idiot,” he murmured before clearing his throat. “More importantly, this is a big chance. We can get rid of Nikaido’s greatest asset.”

“No.”

“What do you mean ‘no?’”

“Has age gotten the better of you? No means the opposite of yes.”

Viktor placed a palm on his bald head. “I mean, why won’t you capitalize on this opportunity?”

“Are you really asking me to use Mitsuki as bait?”

“It’s better than doing nothing. You can’t guarantee Nikaido’s faction won’t hurt Mitsuki during the rendezvous.”

“I can. I know Ageha enough to do so.”

“I know you trust that boy, but Nikaido is a different matter.”

“She’s a ruthless witch, true, but she wouldn’t risk losing, in your words, her greatest asset. Kai has many enemies, and I’m not the last boss, at least in her eyes.”

“But this chance is too good to pass up. Nikaido’s team is always completely off the radar or out of our reach whenever they do show up. If we know when and where Ageha is showing up, we can eliminate him without putting Mitsuki in danger. I can take him out myself.”

“I trust in your marksmanship more than anyone, Viktor, but don’t forget they have Arashi Tanizaki on their team.”

Viktor pressed his lips tightly together and mulled over the possibilities. “You’re right. This isn’t the ideal battleground for us. One last question.”

“When did you ever care if I wanted to hear your babbling?”

“Why did you let Mitsuki do this? If you don’t plan on attacking Ageha, this ‘date’ is an unnecessary risk with absolutely no benefit.”

“There are benefits. Mitsuki needs this to cut away her attachment to Ageha, giving Sakuya free rein when she avenges Ken. Sakuya thinks that Kai’s and Mei Xing’s groups all deserve to die by her hands, so there’s no avoiding that. Plus, having Mitsuki get closer to Ageha might dull his ability to hurt her directly. The remote android’s weakness is the controller, and I’m sure they’ll eventually figure that out and target her. It’s a win-lose situation benefiting our side. Against that all-star team, we need every advantage we can get.”

“And the real reason?”

“…Mitsuki and Sakuya are my daughters. I want them to be able to do what they want.”

Viktor made a bitter smile. “From the moment I met you, I knew you’d become someone great, but I never imagined the word ‘mother’ would stick at the end of that title.”

“I do my best.”

 

***

 

General Walker knocked on the door. “Sir, I have brought Mister Estrella.”

“Come in.”

The general let the guest, Nicolas Estrella, enter Butler’s office first before following him and locking the door.

Butler was now the defacto leader of the United States of America, but they were not in the oval office. The guest area at the front of the office consisted of a wide coffee table flanked by two sofas. The room itself had barely any decorations, quite fitting for the spartan impression Butler’s face gave off.

The former Defense Secretary believed in secrecy over security. Hiding from an attack was much easier than stopping one, so he had asked Walker, his right-hand man, to prepare a top secret venue for his everyday activities.

That was why Walker felt confounded when Butler invited Estella to his hideout. They were both world leaders with power obtained through violence, but one ruled over an insignificant bunch of dots in the pacific, while the other controlled the most powerful military in the world.

Even so, Walker had not questioned Butler. He trusted that there was a deeper reason for his choices. There always was.

Butler extended a hand towards his fellow dictator. “Hello. I’m-”

“Please.” Estrella took his hand and shook it with vigor. “No need for an introduction from the most famous man on the planet. I’m Nicolas Estrella. While I’m sure you know everything about me, I’d at least like to introduce myself as a fellow nationalist.”

“I’ve heard stories. Please take a seat.”

The two leaders sat across each other. Walker took a spot on Butler’s left, leaving a person’s space between them.

“I believe you have a lot of questions about this invitation, Mister Estrella.”

“Not really, no.”

“Oh?”

“You called me here to establish an alliance of sorts because you know about my ties with Valeriya Varrenikov. In short, you want me to act as your spy, or to stab a dagger in her back at an opportune time.”

“Better than your reputation.”

“I always do research before I meet people. I got careless once, and it cost me a lot. I learned my lesson, so I’ve been extra careful since then.”

“Kaika Nikaido?”

“As much as I hate to admit it.”

“There’s no shame in that. She’s a formidable foe.”

“As expected, she betrayed you.”

“I wouldn’t say that. We both knew the conditions of our cooperation from the start. You can say we reached the end of our agreement.”

“Is your daughter working with Nikaido part of your plan?”

“No. But that matter is of no consequence.”

“Is she that incompetent?”

“On the contrary. She learned from me, and that by itself serves as a testament to her ability. However, her competency also makes her predictable. Foolish luck is much harder to deal with than well thought-out plans.”

“I guess you’re still a father, as hard it is to imagine with that rigid face of yours.”

“Show some respect, Mister Estrella,” said Walker in a threatening tone.

“It’s fine, General. He’s just trying to provoke a reaction from me. I’ve never seen being a father as a weakness. I do love Mashiro, and I’m proud of her. That fact is something I’ll never be ashamed of.”

“But you’re her enemy now.”

“What does that have to do with being family?”

Estrella shook his head. “People in my country think the same way, but I’ll never understand. No matter. We don’t need to see eye to eye on everything to cooperate. I agree to your terms. Valeriya has lost her usefulness to me anyway.”

“That’s a quick decision,” said Walker. “I can’t help but question the value of your loyalty.”

“Loyalty?” Estrella brandished a confident smile. “I have none, except for myself and my country. Nikaido is my enemy. While Valeriya is also in conflict with that brat, your team seems to have a better retirement plan.”

Butler clasped his fingers together. “While I welcome your assistance, I do find it strange why you would join us without even knowing our true objectives.”

“Didn’t I already confirm your objectives the moment we met? We’re fellow nationalists. I don’t know about those below you, but I’m sure you’re doing all this for your country. I know because I went through the same thing. The Philippines may be incomparable to the U.S.-”

“Please, no need for such words. The beauty in a man’s love for country is unaffected by the size of its GDP or the number of its missiles.”

“I appreciate that. As for the detailed rationale behind your coup, I can wager a guess. Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.”

“I’m all ears.”

“The United States has slowly fallen into enormous debt because of the depreciation of oil and natural gas. The territories you have in the middle east became meaningless due to the fission energy revolution decades ago. Most industries, including transportation, have turned to electric power. Creditor countries, such as Japan and China, have increasingly put economic pressure on the United States to demilitarize. In an era of peace, I guess your former leaders thought selling their guns to get more luxury bags and rare delicacies was a good idea. That by itself isn’t so bad. But I guess they forgot all about Russia, who would jump at the chance for war with a weakened America. That’s why you rose up. The great Admiral Butler and his spotless record, a hero of the American people, here to save his country from the imminent threat of world war.”

“A minor correction. My record isn’t spotless. I once had a fist fight with my commanding officer after I caught him stealing military funds.”

Estrella laughed. “That’s more of a plus in the eyes of the masses! In the past two months, people’s support for your administration and reinforcement of the military has skyrocketed, no doubt in thanks to the propaganda of a Russian and Chinese alliance spreading virally on the net. There are also the rumors about secret military ties between Japan and China thanks to NGC’s heavy influence in both countries.”

Butler unfettered a rare smile. “I’m glad my eye for people hasn’t waned in old age.”

“You’re too kind. I promise you the support of the Philippine territories, including the aid of rebel forces in Southeast Asia, if the time for war arises.”

“When, Mister Estrella. When.”

“I’ll help you deal with the Valeriya problem too, and we can work on the Nikaido problem together. Deal?” Nick leaned over the coffee table and offered his hand.

Butler took the outstretched hand and made a firm nod.

The three men discussed the particulars of the newly formed alliance for a few hours before Walker called a few soldiers to escort Estrella to a vehicle.

After Estrella left the office, Walker decided to ask Butler about some of his concerns. He generally never questioned Butler about his decisions, but he had a bad feeling about this particular one. An instinctual fear told him that they should not underestimate the rebel-turned-dictator.

Walker, despite what his titanic frame and gladiator-like face would suggest, was no stranger to fear. As a child, he feared many things: the dark, heights, ghosts, cooties, bullies, girls, attention, you name it. He worked his entire life to overcome them one by one, sweating blood and tears to become the man he was today.

Nicolas Estrella was the exact opposite. Instinct told Walker that the Filipino was also a coward, but instead of improving himself, he sought to destroy everything he feared. Butler and America were certainly worthy of that man’s fear.

Walker approached Butler at his desk. “I don’t trust him, sir. I don’t think it’s wise to cooperate with him.”

Butler stopped checking paperwork and focused on the general. “Of course. No one trusts Nicolas, not even his own people. …You seem surprised.”

“…It’s just that you treated him with such respect that I thought-”

“I do respect him. Respect and trust are different things, General. Nicolas clawed his way up from being a nobody to where he is now. If that doesn’t deserve respect, nothing in this world does. That said, I don’t like him. He belongs to the same kind of scum that we’re trying to protect ourselves from. Sure, I could’ve treated him like garbage, and he still would’ve accepted our proposal. He put up a good front, but he’s desperate. The only reason I treated him as an equal is because he’s more effective that way.”

“Effective?”

“The man thrives on pride. His falling out with Varrenikov is mainly due to the fact that the Russian never considered nor treated him as an equal. Based on what he said earlier, Nikaido also took advantage of that weakness. He’s so desperate to live up to his bloated sense of self that when it is challenged, he frantically struggles and therefore stumbles. I’m just providing him the crutch to make him more useful to us.”

Walker regretted his disgraceful display of distrust in his commanding officer, who clearly had everything under control. “I apologize for speaking out of line.”

“Not at all, General. I welcome any and all opinions. In fact, I can’t do what I do without them. This conversation brought to light possible loopholes in my strategy. I appreciate it.”

Walker could not find the words to show how grateful those words made him feel. He just stood silently, stiff as a board.

“Keep an eye on Nicolas. I’ll leave him to you.” Butler returned to his desk work. “You’re dismissed.”

Walker performed a perfect salute. “Sir, yes, sir!” He then clicked his boots together, executed a snappy-as-a-whip about face, and left Butler’s office.

 

***

 

After having dinner, Ageha recalled an important task that needed attention. He picked up his mobile from the bed and unlocked it. After a few presses, he pulled up a certain contact and made a change.

“Beautiful Onee-sa-”

“Beau-”

“B-”

“Bazookas.”

Saved.

 

Next Chapter

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7 thoughts on “Chapter One: Preparations

  1. darkwingedflower

    Welcome back!

    “With the devil’s spice~~ with the devil’s spice~~ the devil’s spice~~”
    “Hey… Have you ever find the taste of life is so bitter, and a bit sour~”

    haven’t got idea to continue that…

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

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